Over more than 20 years working within the social service sector, I have sat in countless meetings with community members, organizations’ staff and board members, elected officials, and philanthropists seeking to answer the same question: How can we address the pressing problems in our communities? Over and over again, the answer in these rooms has been the same: We must begin by understanding the deficits of the communities we seek to change and offer our best guesses—typically top-down solutions—on how to impact them.
This dynamic changed for me when I began working with the Family Independence Initiative (FII) seven years ago. FII does away with the traditional top-down approach to helping people struggling with poverty. Rather than promoting a new program, service, or intervention, families themselves act as agents, and our model is built on investing in them and the solutions they discover.
FII also tracks the progress of individual families as they work to build economic and social mobility. We use that data to identify which of their actions really work, and we then direct resources straight to families and communities so they can build on the same successful strategies. Think about it: If Amazon and Google can use data to help us find a new book or a faster way to navigate traffic, we can do the same thing for thousands of families, working together to find solutions to the challenges posed by poverty.
We do this by partnering with families to co-create an environment where they can access resources and social connections. We learn about their capacities, strengths, and initiative; innovate and test resources and tools that allow families to best use their assets and abilities to achieve economic and social mobility; and disseminate what we learn to shape markets, practices, policies, and beliefs to more effectively support families in moving their communities forward.
Families choose to partner with FII to accelerate their own mobility but also to collectively lift the entire community. They enroll with a group of six to seven other families and make a two-year commitment to each other and to FII. Family groups meet monthly, setting their own agendas to strengthen their social networks and support each other’s progress. Each month, families log into their online journals to enter information about income and savings, health, education and skills, housing, leadership, and connections. After six months of engagement, families gain access to FII’s Resource Hub, a flexible marketplace of financial capital that offers loans, grants, and scholarships based on family data and information about families’ level of initiative. This capital, which FII families may not otherwise have access to, allows them to make the most of their initiative and accelerates their mobility.
Our approach eliminates the guesswork from the equation and drives investment to the solutions that are already being created every day in low-income communities. In the last decade and a half, we have proven the best way to achieve social change is to put people in a position of power over their own progress. That means that families dictate what support and resources they need, and they decide how to use them.
Over the past 15 years, FII families have demonstrated amazing results. Families who partner with FII and share their data with us have demonstrated, within two years, average income increases of 20 percent, average savings increases from $100 to $1000, and an average decrease in use of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program and food stamps of 62 percent. Even more significantly, families overwhelmingly report that working with FII has strengthened their community connections and helped build a strong network of relationships to support their success long-term. These numbers are not the result of any program or service. They are a result of people working in an environment that acknowledges their strengths, co-invests in their goals, and places control back into the hands of communities that have been historically disenfranchised.
A key element of our approach is transparency and data-sharing: Families who chose to partner with us and share their data are also the direct beneficiaries of that data. Unlike in the majority of evaluations, research, and studies that look to learn about low income communities, families who share data with FII also get their own personalized dashboard to track their progress, and share the stories behind the data.
Stories are the key to understanding the data that FII collects. Take the case of Flor Gonzalez. Gonzalez and her husband have four children; he works in construction, and she earns money by caring for a few children in her home. She became an FII member in early 2015, after a friend at a local community college in Albuquerque told her about the organization. When she joined FII, the family’s income was about $1,500 a month. But Gonzalez knew they could do better. She’d long aspired to turn her garage into a daycare center where she could accommodate more children and formalize her home daycare. After enrolling with FII, the Gonzalez family kept $1,000 in savings for three consecutive months in order to apply for FII’s matched savings dollars. The family successfully applied, and FII gave them a matching grant for $2,000, which they used to successfully convert their garage into a daycare center where Gonzalez is licensed to care for up to six children at a time. Their hard work and initiative, which FII was able to recognize and reward, allowed the Gonzalez family to double their monthly income and fulfill a goal that will allow them to thrive and build a brighter future for their family.
The individual household impact that FII captures often has a ripple effect within participants’ communities. When East Boston-based FII member Beatriz Moore savings displayed an uncharacteristic increase during the holiday season, FII inquired as to how. Moore shared that she and a local group of households in her community traditionally saved ten dollars a week for each of the children in their household. They had been running this informal children’s savings club long before they ever partnered with FII. For a small fee, participating families could access this savings pool as a community bridge loan to fund revenue-building events and increase the pool. At the end of each year the money was distributed to all participants based on how many children they had; many used it for Christmas presents and costs associated with the holiday season. The origin of the club was Moore’s understanding that her individual success meant little if her children did not grow up in a community that was also thriving. When she shared her strategy with others, friends and neighbors quickly asked to participate and reap the same benefits for their children.
FII’s approach has not abandoned the rigor of data collection, because we are determined to illuminate the positive outcomes experienced in the communities we work with. But the power of the communities’ stories is equal to the value of the data that uncovers and contextualizes them. Working in partnership with FII families, focusing on their assets, and learning about their innovations in reaching prosperity allows us to take the guesswork out of determining low-income communities’ needs and paves the way for FII to support the success that these families can create for themselves.